In part one of this feature UK independent single-format magazine 360 spoke to the bosses of Lionhead, Rare, Codemasters and others about deals for developers and UK studios competing on the global stage. In part two our panel turns its attention to a single console standard, and the Hollywood model…
360: Are artistically innovative games and profitable games mutually exclusive or can creativity and popularity coexist?
Peter Molyneux, Lionhead: Yes they can. I would argue that there are games out there which have had great production methodology, but also the very innovative games that spring to mind are The Sims, Half-Life and the GTA series.
Peter Jones, Blade: They are just more rare, in effect it means that developers have to take more risks and have more understanding bank managers.
Simon Farmer, Rare: It’s definitely getting harder, but I wouldn’t say impossible for the two to coexist. The safer bets are the ones that obviously receive all the momentum in terms of marketing support, which helps to set apart the real big hitters. But if someone created a game that was truly ground-breaking, word of mouth is still capable of infusing its own momentum and creating a success.
Colin Macdonald, Realtime Worlds: They certainly do exist; it’s just unfortunate that they’re in the minority. Our own Crackdown is a great example of something that was innovative and has gone on to be an amazing success. Particularly looking at the games that come from the UK, we’ve something of a legacy in this area.
Gavin Cheshire, Codemasters: Well, they’re not mutually exclusive but certainly you need to work hard to make sure that they aren’t. At Codies we looked at the whole efficiency thing when we started out on Xbox 360 and PS3. We knew we needed to be better than we had been to make our games great and within a budget that would work.
Our first title with all these efficiencies was Colin McRae: DiRT and I think it’s fair to say everyone thought that was a beautiful game. Creatively we pushed the bar because the franchise had stagnated and yet we still managed to appeal to the masses. It’s also been massively profitable for us.
I know of a few games up in the $30 million dev cost bracket that may look good but will they ever make money. Frankly, I’m sceptical.
Alasdair Evans, Laughing Jackal: A successful game is one that meets and then exceeds the expectations of both the publisher and the developer. Laughing Jackal’s policy is to make the best possible games we can within the timescale and budgets that are set – irrespective of whether the games we are working on are artistically rewarding or commercial in their design.
Fred Hasson, Tiga: That’s a big subject but the topline answer from what I see currently is that artistically innovative games definitely work for profit alongside features and gameplay. In some segments however the art is not so necessary to achieve worldwide popularity.
360: Should publishers be following Hollywood’s example of offering more opportunities to indie developers from their blockbuster profits?
PJ: But do they? If you ask me many movies have gone the same way as games; most are predictable pap. How much money is invested and under what terms? If you look at the small print I bet they own the small studio’s IP. If publishers extended more money I think they would look to own any IP created. Hey, if we extended money on a paper concept I would at least want to part own the IP. No, the money should ideally come from outside.
SF: Should they? Yes. Will they? It remains to be seen. However, Microsoft has put tremendous effort into creating a platform that enables hobbyists, indie developers and professional developers alike to develop games with Xbox Live Arcade. Also, the XNA Creators Club and Dream-Build-Play game development contest are good examples for how the bigger players in the industry are working to foster indie developers’ efforts to create games for the Windows and Xbox 360 platforms using XNA Game Studio.
AE: Developers who expect handouts from publishers will not survive. Everything comes down to commercial decisions and developer must make sure they are offering the right products and services to the right people at the right time.
PM: It would be great to see publishers recognising the value of independent developers who can go further with creative visions than most internal prototype teams. But I still think a new genre is more likely to be discovered in a garage than they are in huge studios.
CM: The games business, and the game development process, is a lot more complicated than Hollywood, so I’m not sure it’s that simple. Certainly there needs to be as many ways as possible of highlighting innovative new games, and talented new developers. Five years ago people were predicting the death of the small developer because of rising budgets, but there are tons of new platforms that small developers can excel at – mobile phone, casual online, handheld, and now even things like Facebook.
GC: I have to say that I think Codemasters already do this. When I sit on Green Light meetings here and we see something that ticks all the boxes for originality, looks and playability, we’ll sign something that may not be the next million-seller blockbuster or even be on every format, but we’ll take a risk. We do have to make money on our games but there are always other revenue streams or even some reflected glory that comes from the odd left-field title.
FH: This is an even higher risk industry than Hollywood – no one expects anything to be ‘given’. The figures of consumer spending in the industry keep going up but remember that hardware is being sold at a loss right now and that low new-gen installed base means profits are harder to make during the generation changeover.
360: Has this current generation of consoles posed any significantly new development questions? Has it actually freed up new ideas that were once impossible to accomplish?
GC: Yes and yes. This current generation needed a different technical mindset to previous consoles. Multi-threading architecture alone posed brand-new possibilities that needed to be tapped into properly and I think we rose to that challenge very well in the UK.
I don’t think the new technology is about the graphics really. Games have been looking great since the Xbox and there were even some startling beautiful games on PSone, so it’s more about the freedom our designers are getting because of the new power. When you sit down and come up with a new game idea, there’s a lot more on the ‘must have’ feature list now and a lot less on the ‘not possible’ one. That’s great.
PM: Yes Live and online is a perfect example of how hardware can foster whole new sections of development. I’d also argue that the work Microsoft did on achievements is an example of a simple idea that made a difference.
CM: They’ve allowed much more detail – whether that’s in terms of graphics, or physics, but I’m not sure I’ve yet seen a new concept that wasn’t possible in some way on less powerful hardware. Development teams are fighting each other (and themselves) to push this new level of detail that’s possible to the limit, which is generally pretty healthy I think. The new questions that are getting raised are more around the finance/business side of things – with games the scale they are, there’s some big headaches in making it financially viable to create them.
AE: The real challenge of developing for the current generation of consoles is to be able to make products that appeal to the hugely diverse target audiences. Multiformat development is now more difficult than ever, but I think huge leaps of quality and innovation will be seen over the next three years as we hone our skills on each platform.
FH: Yes and no. Most obvious wins are that emotion and more human-like behaviours are now becoming a reality, but the way in which tech is updated and circulated to indies (always last in the chain) is a massive investment that no one pays for. If the consoles keep pushing up the cost of development to third parties they will kill a good many of them and suffer the consequences. The costs have to come down, not go up – this might mean more tech supplied with the SDKs. There is an inherent wastefulness in every developer investing its own tech.
360: What do British developers have to offer that others in the world do not?
FH: Creativity, innovation, and a deep-seated tradition and heritage in design. This cannot be transferred so easily, so it’s our key advantage.
CM: An unparalleled mix of development experience and creativity, with the business acumen backing it up that allows that to translate into amazing games.
PJ: Poverty, surviving against the odds, tenaciousness. No seriously, the current portfolio of British developers is world class. It offers technical innovation and game designs that belies its size, in short we punch above our weight. The development community of the UK is a credit to this country. My answers to the earlier questions stand though I do think that the current period is one of both unparalleled opportunity and unparalleled threat.
SF: Fortunately or unfortunately, British developers advantages in experience, passion and the bad weather that keeps us all indoors a good portion of the year makes us kindred spirits with a very vibrant game development community across the pond in Seattle.
GC: I think we can adapt better than anyone. If we really go for it, UK developers are capable of pretty much any type of game in any genre and we also compete.
We’re incredibly original when we want to be. Some of the best games ever developed come out of the UK.
AE: I think on both a technical and organisational front British developers still lead the way. I firmly believe that as a gaming nation we are destined to see vibrant and new talent entering the fray every year – bringing with it new skills and a fresh way of thinking. When it comes to management and organisation of projects the British development community still reigns supreme and it is this commercial side to our talent that will keep us one step ahead of the competition.
360: What do developers need to be doing to keep themselves innovating and at the cutting edge?
PM: Realise that innovation is only as good as the money it can potentially make. Also looking for the thing that people are expecting and turn it into something new and unexpected.
SF: Constantly review the production processes and technology used to create games, to allow development teams to focus their abilities and time on the gameplay and mechanics, rather than the tools required to build the games. And also bring in new blood to mix with experienced devs, a bit like the England football team really… oh... perhaps not a good example.
AE: Get younger! The market of today is presenting a whole range of new opportunities and demands. Young talent, those who can feel the movements in the market, will emerge as the brightest stars in the industry. Developers need to accept that new ways and fresh thinking is needed and experience counts for less now than at any time before.
CM: Most good developers are perfectionists anyway, so they’re always trying to do the coolest/biggest/fastest whatever and naturally push themselves to be at the cutting edge. They’re fascinated to see what everyone else is up to, and how they can do better.
GC: Originality and quality have to be there I think. Great ideas need to be realised well and with harder and harder technology to get the best out of, which requires more and more effort.
FH: Co-opetition is one of those terrible west coast words but its meaning is valid – developers need to co-operate with each other and learn from each other – maybe this means mergers. In the UK we need to do more in the growth segments – casual and MMO.
360: Is there such a thing as a quintessentially British game any more or has such a thing died off?
SF: Ten years ago yes, but I believe they are a dying if not extinct breed with developers becoming more aware of world markets and publishers’ requirements and the need to appeal to them all.
AE: No, and for one simple reason. Today’s market is not about developing in Britain for Britain. Today a game has to have a wider appeal taking in the PAL regions (EU, Europe, Middle East, Africa and Oceania) and also the US. Publishers do not want small markets to aim at with games – they want as much of the world as possible.
GC: I guess you would look to the UK for the quintessential female action hero, which is good since the quintessential male action hero in literature and film is also from here!
PM: I suppose there is something about British humour. Look at Lego Star Wars, which is indisputably British even though it’s is based on a US IP. I think it’s the humour that does this. I’ve heard Japanese publishers say “you British are crazy”, and I think that’s our strongest selling point!
CM: I think going back to the days of the ZX Spectrum, probably most games on that were quintessentially British. These days developers have to be extremely conscious of the world market they have to appeal to, so while most UK developed games have many aspects that are typically British, I don’t think many would be considered typically British in an overall sense.
360: Where is the new development talent coming from in the UK? Is the well of talent drying up or on the increase like never before?
PJ: I think that it is actually increasing. We are now getting the benefit of more tailored university courses in programming, art and games design.
PM: For me it’s about levelled out. Nowadays universities offer games development courses and publishers and developers are much more proactive in going out to university career fairs and now we are seeing crossover from other industries.
SF: From Rare’s perspective, we still have a healthy intake of graduates every year. This has tended to ebb and flow over the years, but at the moment we still see a desire from people to become involved and associated with an exciting and rapidly evolving industry.
CM: There’s a large number of Games courses at universities across the land now and more and more people coming into the industry come through them. Unfortunately there’s quite a few that don’t seem to be turning out graduates that the industry feels are fit for the job, but some are excellent. Other folk come from a massive range of backgrounds – and sometimes some of the best developers come from pretty bizarre backgrounds.
GC: As I mentioned before, it is harder now to find new talent but it’s compounded by the need for more of it as our teams have grown. We have to be much more creative about how we get new talent in and we’re looking further and further afield to find it.
FH: The industry has actually scaled up by 40 per cent or more since 2000 (even though it contracted in between) to meet the demands of the new platforms, but if we have to say one thing to government to help us with only, it would be skills – everyone is strapped for suitable new entrants and the ‘Playing for keeps’ report showed that only 25-30 per cent of ‘games’ graduates were getting jobs – nothing for the government to be proud of methinks.
360: There’s been talk recently of a single console future. Do you think such a future is inevitable and will it be beneficial to the industry or merely stifle its creativity?
PJ: I have been in this industry for 20 years and there has always been talk of a single platform future. Don’t believe it!
SF: If we continue to really focus on the high-tech capabilities of the platform then I think it will limit the competition to those with the financial capacity to develop such hardware, but I believe this generation is proving it’s not just about the technology, it’s about the whole experience and, as always, the games. I’d like to see a healthy competitive environment in the future – and I don’t think that’s possible with a single platform.
CM: Long term the cost of developing both the games, and the hardware, is such that we’ll likely see just one console for a particular area whether it’s one that dominates as a set-top box or as a handheld, but there’ll still be many different possible platforms for developers to consider.
GC: I’m not convinced it’s inevitable, I mean, who would have bet that the Wii would have done so well after a pretty lacklustre GameCube. Certainly the analysts didn’t! So I think there will definitely be more convergence of gadgets in the living room to one machine but I’m betting there will still be a few players all offering something slightly different for us to get our teeth into.
AE: We have had a single console for the past ten years – the PlayStation 2. It dominated console sales and regularly accounted for over 60 per cent of annual console games sold. I don’t think the PlayStation 2 stifled creativity.
FH: A single console with some form of non- anarchic open source system is far more logical than what we have today – it has to come and will help everyone. It will certainly not stifle creativity.